The Coming Eclipse of Egyptian Secularism

The Coming Eclipse of Egyptian Secularism

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President Barack Obama and the State Department's Mideast bureau have put on a brave face on the Egyptian crisis, voicing support for the "Lotus Revolution" and calling for the quick departure of President Hosni Mubarak. After beating the drum loudly for democracy in Egypt, the White House is taking a breathless pause. At American embassies across the Mideast and Islamic world, Deputy Chiefs of Mission (who run in-country intelligence) are gasping at the regional fallout from the White House pressure to oust a stalwart ally, Mubarak, and Obama's apparent endorsement of favored presidential contender Mohamed ElBaradei, joined in a coalition with the controversial Muslim Brotherhood.

With Jordan and Yemen the latest governments caught in a rising tide of pro-democracy protests, American diplomats are at a loss for words to explain the official about-face to once-friendly Arab regimes. Alliances are starting to unravel amid whispers of secret deals with the Brotherhood.

Hillary Clinton is now forced to convene the first-ever conference of ambassadors, scheduled for Monday. Diplomats from 260 embassies and consulates will be flying to Washington to ask questions, and for some, to raise accusations about "who lost the Middle East."

Days of Rage

In TV sound bites, the majority of Tahrir Square protesters gave answers inconsistent with the White House pitch for a Twitter revolution of peace-loving Westernized youths. Most statements to Al Jazeera expressed hatred not only toward Mubarak but also against the entire membership of the ruling National Democratic Party, the primary defender of secularism in a society that has been moving toward religious conservatism. Angry crowds are demanding a complete takedown of existing institutions, starting with the wholesale purge of NDP members and the upper layer of the bureaucracy as well as capital punishment for police officers who shot or clubbed protesters.

The Egyptian president was hanged in effigy to the cheers of the crowd. Many a young man was shown dragging a forefinger across his neck in the cutthroat gesture. Frightened foreign tourists gave accounts of mobs storming hotels and assaulting police officers who were forced to retreat or fire at their assailants. An East Asian woman described how a tourist bus on its way to the airport was pelted with stones amid anti-foreign slogans. Radical elements have organized prison breaks, freeing hardened criminals and extremists convicted of terrorism. The very term used for the Egyptian protests -- "days of rage" -- harken back to the nihilistic Weathermen radicals in Obama's former senatorial district, Chicago.

A sweeping revolution is under way. It is certain to be democratic in that the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to win a plurality of parliamentary seats representative of its power base, estimated at 20 to 30 percent of the electorate. After three decades of banishment, imprisonment, execution and exile, the Muslim Brotherhood is back as a major political force in the land of its birth.

The White House's sales pitch is coming undone because only a Lotus Eater cannot but notice that the Brotherhood, or Al Ikhwal, has been linked, if just by circumstantial evidence or through its many splinter groups, to the 9/11 attacks, the assassination of Anwar Sadat and hundreds of other terrorist incidents. One fact is undisputed by their spokesmen, that the Brotherhood chapter in Gaza created Hamas.

Army as Protector?

After selling an uneasy narrative of "democracy" to an astonished world, the White House is now rolling out experts to reassure the public that the Egyptian army will not allow Islamists to take over the Cairo government. American strategists are therefore already contradicting the democracy rhetoric by projecting a Pinochet-type military protectorate. Yet any new constitution, once the entire Nasserite political structure is torn down like the palaces of the Shah of Iran, is likely to forbid any military intervention in politics.

A more practical challenge for American interests is that the Egyptian army has no incentive, financial or political, to become a domestic policeman -- that noxious task goes to the police force, which decided to smash the rallies rather than stand trial for slaying protesters.

As for attempts to bolster the generals -- all of them close associates of Mubarak -- the current $1 billion-plus in U.S. military aid cannot cover the price of a dozen state-of-the-art jet fighters, much less the payroll of 400,000 men and women in uniform. The pro-Israel lobby in Congress is not going to back more military aid for a country with an uncertain political future.

The Egyptian military, humiliated in recent years by its powerlessness over Israeli air strikes against South Lebanon and Gaza, is a second-rate fighting force armed with obsolete American weaponry. A fleet of aging F-16s and Abrams tank are no match against the high-tech Israel Defense Force with its electronic countermeasures, smart bombs, video-guided missiles, cyber warfare teams, Dolphin submarines and nuclear warheads.

The present military imbalance stands in stunning contrast to the earlier era of Anwar Sadat and his air force commander Gen. Hosni Mubarak, who procured Soviet hardware to achieve technological parity with Israeli forces. Within six years of the Egyptian military debacle from Moshe Dayan's surprise attack in the Six-Day War, Mubarak's Sukhoi and MiG fighters were strafing Israeli airfields and bombing tank columns, enabling army engineers to build pontoon bridges across the Suez Canal to regain the Sinai. Since those glory days of the Yom Kippur War, American military aid has been on slow drip, minimizing Egyptian military strength and shrinking the country's geopolitical horizons. Long past its heyday, the army has little choice but to remain inside the barracks and watch events go by.

Economic Slide

Public anger and a new stress on human rights will ensure that all opinions, including those of Islamist activists and sympathizers, will enjoy unprecedented freedoms of assembly, public speech, access to television broadcasts and publishing rights.

Still, none of these new freedoms can address Egypt's underlying economic slowdown. Over the past three years, annual GDP growth has slipped from 7 percent to 5.5 percent, while inflation has soared from 8 percent to 11 percent. The rising cost of food and reduced fuel subsidies were a major factor driving anti-Mubarak sentiment. Household yearly incomes average around $5,500, but more than 20 percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day. The underlying reality is that the Egyptian population has doubled in less than 30 years to more than 86 billion people.

Clearly, no new government can continue the consumer subsidies or the infrastructure mega projects that have kept the economy running throughout the Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak eras. Washington, for all the hype about progress and free enterprise, is unlikely to bail out distant Egypt when its own economy is mired in unemployment and runaway federal debt.

A Struggle for Hearts and Minds

A nationwide purge, like the one that wiped away Saddam Hussein's Ba’athists in Iraq, will enable competing ideologies to fill the void left by the National Democratic Party's blend of populism and pan-Arab nationalism. The leading contender is the Islamic fundamentalism of the Muslim Brotherhood, which can be expected to take a go-slow path to Islamization, much like the Turkish Justice and Development Party.

On the economy, the Brotherhood is opposed to Nasser's socialism and Sadat's Open Door policy, which promoted foreign investment and corporate capitalism. The Islamic model of ownership clustered among the families of leading clerics, as in Iran, will probably replace the close ties between tycoon-owned corporations and government contracts. For the impoverished masses, the mosque serves as the center for collecting and distributing zakat, or charity, connections for employment, resolution of civil disputes, and education. Leading bodies including religious councils, or shura, and larger mosques will gradually steer schools, corporations, banks, the military and political parties toward Muslim values.

Although Hillary Clinton's call for "an orderly transition" may not be quite what the Brotherhood has in mind, it could turn out to be the first step toward a complete transformation of Egypt.

Brotherhood Revival

What is the benevolent association known as the Brotherhood? Opinions vary as to its true nature, and whether it has really evolved beyond its past record of intolerance, intimidation and assassination. Allied with ElBaradei in the opposition National Association for Change, its current leaders deny the many accusations of its involvement in the lethal plot against President Anwar Sadat. What remains to be proven is whether any of the Egyptian hijackers in the 9/11 attacks were acting under clandestine orders from the Brotherhood

Formed in 1928, Al Ikwhal aligned with the Axis Power against British colonialism in the Middle East and, in World War II, allied with Nazi Germany to attack British forces in Palestine. In the postwar nationalist ferment, it was the main and often violent rival of Gamal Abdel Nasser's Free Officers Corps that declared Egyptian independence from the British Empire. Frustrated by the Nasserists at home, the Brotherhood went on to form 70 chapters worldwide, becoming the fountainhead of the modern Islamist movement. Its more ardent members broke away to form splinter groups, including Omar Abdel-Rahman's Islamic Group, responsible for the Luxor massacre and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a core faction within Al Qaeda.

Conspiracy theories about CIA links to Islamicists involved in the Sept. 11 attacks are gaining some currency due to the White House backing of the Brotherhood-dominated coalition. The existence of such covert relationships has been known for a long time. Miles Axe Copeland, a founder of the CIA forerunner called the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), disclosed: "Sound beatings of the Muslim Brotherhood organizers who had been arrested (by Nasser's secret police) revealed that the organization had been thoroughly penetrated, at the top, by the British, American, French and Soviet intelligence services, any one of which could either make active use of it or blow it up, whichever best suited its purposes. Important lesson: Fanaticism is no insurance against corruption; indeed, the two are highly compatible."

Worst-case Scenarios

The secularist establishment in Cairo isn't folding the tents yet. Mubarak's inner circle can be expected to strike against the Brotherhood's soft-power strategy, much like how the Algerian military high command cancelled the 1991 election victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). The ensuing civil war claimed 200,000 lives and spawned throat slashing as a part of its psychological warfare. On a reporting assignment in the Magreb region, I was told by a counterterrorism official: "Although they won the democratic elections fairly, the FIS if it was allowed to form a government will never allow another free vote. After taking control of the state, they will end all freedoms, so they gave us no choice but to keep them outside of power."

In stark contrast to Hillary Clinton's effort to be optimistic over democracy protests, Western counterterrorism experts are now busy drawing up worst-case scenarios. Some are forecasting an Algerian-style conflict between the military and the Brotherhood. A study by Mary Blankenship at the U.S. Naval War College hints at U.S. Central Command contingency plans for an American military intervention in Egypt in the event of an attempted coup by Islamists. An insurgency in Egypt would make the Iraq and Afghan conflicts seem like small peanuts. At his new blog, long-time American journalist in Cairo Steve Negus predicts a criminal takeover of Egyptian society and the economy, much like how the mafiyas scooped up Russian assets during the Yeltsin era.

Perhaps the bitterest outcome for Washington could come from the Obama-Clinton "orderly transition" itself, a squeaky-clean legal reform that will make it safe for the homecoming, a return of jihadis from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan as well as the North American and European battlefronts. The red carpet will be rolled out for the old lions who fought the Mubarak regime decades before it became fashionable for the Twitter generation. Unquestionably the most honored place among resistance heroes will go to Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who as a teenager joined the Brotherhood and went on to become the co-leader of Al Qaeda. Yesterday's terrorist, tomorrow's patriot -- history's been written that way since Sam Adams and John Paul Jones.

The total eclipse of secularism over the Nile won't be the end of the world; it will simply herald the arrival of the crescent moon of a new Islamic order.

Yoichi Shimatsu, a former associate editor of Pacific News Service in the 1980s, is now a Hong Kong-based journalist. He covered the rise of Islamic militancy in the North African Magreb region for the Japan Times Weekly.